What lessons can we learn from school language exchanges?

When I was 18, I took part in a language exchange programme organised by my school. A group of English students who were learning German spent two weeks in Münster with a group of German students who were learning English.

In this article I’m going to look at four lessons that I learned during my two weeks in Germany and how adults who are learning English can apply these lessons to business trips and short trips away to England or English-speaking countries. Obviously the language that I was learning was not English, but the practical lessons still apply.

1. Make the most of having immediate access to English speakers

I was lucky. I got on well with my host family and this made me want to talk to them! We had an agreement that we would speak German in Germany and English in England. This made us both work harder but it was worth it because I spoke so much German during those two weeks.

If your colleagues suggest going out for dinner, don’t hide in your hotel room! As well as being a good opportunity to network, it will also give you the chance to have some intensive language practice. Try to keep the conversations in English and don’t be tempted to have separate conversations with other colleagues who speak your native language while the rest of the group is speaking English.

Group discussions can be more difficult than having one-to-one conversations. However, they are a great way to improve your speaking and listening skills.

2. . Don’t look for material in your native language

When I got to the house, my host family had put books in my room – one in English and one in German. I chose to read the German one, which seemed to impress the host family, but that’s not why I did it. The story looked good and I wanted to practise my language skills.

It’s said that going to another country is good because you are totally immersed in that language. However this is only partly true. You can go back to your hotel room and look for material in your native language online. You can buy food at the supermarket so you don’t have to order at a restaurant. You can access the news in your native language and not look at the local newspapers.

On the other hand, as you have so much information available to you in English, why not make the most of it?

3. Do an activity that you enjoy – it’s a great way to meet new people

One of the activities that was organised during our school language exchange was an ice-skating trip. I’d never been ice-skating before and my main goal was to stay upright and not to end up in a heap on the floor.

One of the other girls was a good skater and she spent some time helping me to master the basics. We used German to communicate but constructing perfect sentences became less important. It was more important that I understood her so that we could skate together.

You may not have time for this on a business trip, but if you have some free time in the evening, try to find an activity that you can do with other people. This makes it easier to strike up conversations because you can talk about the activity and if it’s something that interests you, you are likely to have more to say on the topic.

If you’re a bit shy or you find it hard to strike up conversations with new people in English, find out whether there are any interesting Facebook or Meet-up groups in the town that you’ll be visiting. Meet-up groups are often based on a hobby or interest and in London there are definitely groups for people who are new to London. One of my friends joined a group that organised trips to museums and exhibitions for visitors to London. There are also language exchange boards and places to look for people with similar interests.

4. Take a language speaking risk and do something you’ve never done before!

“Does anyone want to volunteer to give the thank-you speech to the Mayor?” Our teacher was hopeful but nobody wanted to volunteer. The speech had already been written but it was in German and it had to be memorised and delivered in German to the Mayor, various people from the Town Hall and the rest of the English and German Groups. I took on the challenge, more because I didn’t want to let our teacher down than because I wanted to do it. I kept rereading the text until I could say it by heart but I was still nervous!

However when it came to giving the speech, it went well and I think the Mayor was pleased!

It takes effort to overcome the barriers to speaking another language. However, often the fear of speaking is worse than actually speaking.

Unless you’re with colleagues or people that you already know, you’ll never have to see these people again so it doesn’t really matter if you make mistakes. The most important thing is that you can communicate. You may not need to give a speech, but talk to the people around you, ask questions and get used to hearing your voice speaking the other language. You may feel a bit vulnerable at first but it will be worth it in the end.

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Kirsty working with students



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